• October 2012

Is It Possible to Get Smarter as You Age?

By Kathy Kitts
President and CEO
NeuGrowth Center for Brain-Training

At the NeuGrowth Center, we are constantly tracking new research into how the brain develops, grows, and withers.

Once we harness these cutting-edge scientific facts, we incorporate this knowledge into tips for staying flexible and effective, long into old age. With this research-based knowledge, we help our clients—young and old—retrain the brain to realize a brighter future, improve memory, eliminate stress (which kills brain cells), and accelerate learning.

Understanding Neurogenesis

Neurogenesis is the process by which neurons are generated from neural stem and progenitor cells. These cells are most active during prenatal development, since neurogenesis is responsible for populating the growing brain with neurons.

Researchers were surprised to discover recently that neurogenesis continues in several small parts of the brains of mammals—including the hippocampus, which has been shown to be the seat of short-term memory formation, and the subventricular zone.

Studies have indicated that hormones, such as testosterone in vertebrates and ecdysone in invertebrates, influence the rate at which new brain cells are produced. This is big news because for decades, it was thought that the process of new neuron growth ended when people hit their early 20s.

The fact that our brains continue to produce new brain cells gives new hope to those of us who suffer from senior moments.

Why are some octogenarians spry and mentally nimble, but others 10 years younger can’t seem to keep up?

The fact is that the brain is actually pliant. The key is to start young, and to keep the brain nimble as we age.

The Preschool Phenomenon

Since preschoolers are physically active, we tell parents that one of the best ways to optimize their brain growth, organization, and development is to let them run and play. Need proof? Check out the amazing stuff that’s happening at Reebok’s nonprofit organization, BOKS KIDS, pictured right.

The reason that physical activity is so brain-nourishing for kids is that young brains need oxygen to grow and thrive. Since the rate of brain growth peak by the time kids turn 5, little ones need fresh oxygen to nourish the amazing quantity of neurons that are growing and connecting. In fact, that is why, at this age, it’s hard to prevent running and playing.

FYI: The need for fresh oxygen holds true for adults, too—older brains work better when we have rigorous exercise daily!

The Early-Learning Curve

The incredible thing is that preschoolers are capable of learning anything that can be presented in a simple, clear, and direct way. Anything.

Physics: Yes, preschoolers really can learn physics. It’s easier than you can imagine, really, because this is the time that they are finding new and exciting ways to manipulate the physical world. Of course, you need to break down the concepts into very simple terms. The good news is that the more fun you make the lessons, the more they’ll be able to learn.

Here’s a great physics game to play at home: Fill a bowl with water, and sprinkle a little pepper on top. Ask the child why (s)he thinks the pepper floats (the hypothesis). Then, have the child add a drop of dish soap into the center. Ask the child to describe what happened. (The pepper will sink to the bottom.) This phenomenon has to do with the surface tension of the water, and you can explain that that the water actually has a “skin.” Break the surface tension with the soap, and the pepper sinks. (See more here.)

Biology: If you want to add a little biology lesson into the pepper and water experiment, explain that some insects, called, “water striders” use surface tension to walk on top of the water. Now grab a book on bugs, and do a little research together on water striders.

Fractions: We have seen many children learn all four operations of math (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) between the ages of 2 and 3. By 4, we’ve seen some kids go on to fractions and decimals, and be able to apply that knowledge to understanding money.

Money: In fact, some preschoolers can tell you what your change will be when you use a $20 bill to buy three pounds of bananas at $.79/lb—without using a calculator!

Timing Is Everything

While little kids are easy to teach, mostly because they are so eager to learn, they don’t have the attention span of an adult.

So be mindful of the following:

  • Keep the teaching moments extremely short—one or two minutes.
  • Remember, fun is the name of the game. Young children are incredibly joyful. Play is their work. Take a page from that playbook, and have fun, too!
  • Pay close attention to their frustration level, and intuitively know when it’s time to stop—before the child wants to stop. This will keep the love-for-learning dynamic alive, and leave the child wanting more another day.
  • Maintain your child’s innate curiosity, and you’ll develop in the child the foundation for what it takes to be a passionate lifelong learner.

Humor Not Only Heals—It Helps Make Us Smarter

Another easy way to keep your brain healthy and youthful is to play, and laugh. A lot. Most children do, so as often as possible, tap into their youthful readiness to find the world amusing. It not only will make you feel good, it’s contagious!

For even more insights into the power of play, click here to read about the work being done at the Life is good! Company’s nonprofit arm, The Playmakers.

“When you treat kids in a joyful, empowering, inspiring way, you give them guidelines for how to be joyful, empowered, and inspiring themselves,” says Chief Playmaker Steve Gross, pictured above. “So our ultimate goal is to help the people who care for the kids who are in the most life-threatening positions find ways to create sacred spaces to let the joy seep out.”

The opposite approach to being “good-humored,” and encouraging children’s natural openness to the world around them, is to pressure children to to do more than they are ready for.

Remember my comment above, about keeping lessons fun, and tapping into a chlid’s innate sense of joy? Apply that advice as often as possible.

We have found that the best way to open up young children’s capacity to learn is to stimulate their brains through their favorite subjects and activities.

Here are some suggestions for fun activities to do with a preschooler that will get those neurons firing.

  • Are you an artist? Whether or not you consider yourself one now, you probably did when you were a kid. The reason is simple. Children are naturally creative, and almost anything can be a source of inspiration. Nearly anything—from crayons and paints, to pebbles and sticks—can be the medium you use to unleash their imagination. Ask them to spell their name in sand. Encourage them to paint a picture of themselves with pennies. And while you are at it, play with the paint, sand, and pennies yourself to bring out your inner creative genius.
  • I dig dirt: If your children, grandchildren, or students love dump trucks, take them to a nearby construction site where they can observe real dump trucks in action. When you return home, build a miniature dirt pile, and let the children go to town with toy dump trucks doing what they just saw real dump truck operators doing.
  • Science rules: For parents who like science, share your passion with your children through simple science books, activities, and resources to impart some basic science principles in a simple way. One of my favorite activities is to create a “tornado” by taping two soda bottles together, filled with water, and seeing what happens when you rotate the bottles in a quick, tight circle. Or balance a spoon and fork on the lip of a cup. Or make play-doh together with flour, water, salt, oil, and a little cream of tartar .

Kids can do it—and their creations are sure to amaze you. And hopefully, they’ll inspire you to think like a child.

Let your child take the lead.

When you follow children’s interests and “teach” when the opportunities naturally arise, children will always be motivated to learn more. And, they will thoroughly enjoy themselves. And so will you.

So stay young. Stay nimble. And look at life through a preschooler’s eyes. Soon, they may be the eyes with which you see the world. Your brain will thank you.

About Kathy Kitts

For the last 23 years, Kathy Kitts has created brain-stimulation programs for babies and children. She’s applied her knowledge and experience at summer camps for The Smithsonian Associates, Maryland Science Center, and The Levine School of Music.

Through her company, NeuGrowth Center for Brain-Training, she offers private sessions to clients, and also shares her knowledge through seminars and workshops to corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies.

Kitts’ radio program, “The Resilient Brain,” airs Saturdays at noon on PerfectWorldNetworkRadio.com.

She has a BS from the University of Maryland in Microbiology and Behavioral and Social Sciences, and was trained at The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia.

For more information about the NeuGrowth Center for Brain-Training, visit www.neugrowth.com.

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